To study what happened to the Declaration of Independence’s Enlightenment language and project of natural rights of man up to the Abraham Lincoln’s invitation to re-adopt the founding document of the American revolution means to start a research facing the main historiographical current on the origins of the United States and of the American democracy – that of the so-called ‘Republican revolution’ (Onuf, 1983; Wood, 1998; Wilentz, 2005). This current underlines the continuity between the Declaration and the Constitution, and/or a rise of American democracy from Jefferson to Lincoln. This research project begins by breaking the continuity between the Declaration and the Constitution, by considering a missed revolution in the American revolution (Maurini, 2020). It does so on the side of the critical American history (Maier, 1998, 2010; Taylor, 2016), on the side of the historiography of the so-called ‘Conservative counter-revolution’ (Beard, 1957; Dahl, 2003; Klarman, 2017), but from the point of view of the historiography of Enlightenment, that of the revolutionary language and project of the natural rights of man (Hunt, 2007; Israel, 2001, 2006, 2009, 2011; Ferrone, 2003, 2014, 2015) – instead that of the history of ideas like the ‘Conservative counter-revolution’ theories, focused on the concepts of democracy, liberalism, republicanism, etc.
Starting from this historiographical frame, to study the Enlightenment legacy in the American early 19th Century methodologically means looking for traces of that project in the institutional and public debate: this leads to face and move between the historiography of the abolition of slavery and that of the phenomenon of race. If (and just when) the Declaration’s language of natural rights of man represents the cultural background of the abolition of slavery, race represents its lethal enemy – undermining its equality principle.
Facing race as historical phenomenon, a global approach to intellectual history means wading between political and economic history, between the modern history and the history of science; it means considering the economic, the political, and the scientific factors as a whole (Michel, 2020), even if the last is the most decisive one (Pestre, 2015) and the religious one has also influenced my approach – with particular reference to the biblical justifications of American slavery and racism, between monogenetic, polygenetic, and evolutionary theories (Haynes, 2002). With this global approach to intellectual history, it is possible to understand the historical path from the race theories to the institutionalization of racism – including the links between Enlightenment and race (Schaub-Sebastiani, 2021) but challenging the historiographical current that argues the link between Enlightenment and racism (Mosse, 1978).
From the point of view of the Declaration’s natural rights of man, the abolition of slavery represents a Pyrrhic victory, and the institutionalization of racism represents the lost legacy of that Enlightenment project. The same point of view provides an original analysis of the phenomenon of race, but only with that global approach to intellectual history it is possible to enter the historiographical current of re-writing the history of the United States (Maier, 2010; Taylor, 2016; Lepore, 2018) without falling into the trap of one of the most popular among the contemporary historiographical currents on the topic: the Critical Race Theory (Bell, 1995; Delgado, 2013), especially with the last contribution of The 1619 Project (Hannah-Jones, 2021) – including its recent consequences in the public space, i.e. the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the ‘Cancel culture’ movements: even in its merit of having focused public attention on a so current topic, and of having ignited a so actual debate, it aims to re-write the history of the United States in the light of slavery and especially of race (Kendi, 2016), but by reducing the historical complexity and with which it is necessary to look at slavery and especially at race as historical phenomena.